Federal agents nabbed 23 alleged Native American grave robbers in the Four Corners region for various crimes including trafficking in illegally obtained property, the New York Times reported today.
Add cultural destruction to their list of alleged crimes: The region is the ancestral home of ancient Pueblo and Anasazi Indians—a migratory tribe known mostly for pottery and cliff dwellings that date back thousands of years. The looters stole artifacts including pottery, sandals, stone knives, and tools, which they then hoped to sell in a lucrative black market.
Technology, illegal access, and plain-old greed propels pot hunters farther and farther into federally owned backcountry each year. They’d empty the backcountry of relics to fill their pockets with black market coin.
In 2006, FBI guys leaned on a known trafficker, wired him up, and put him in the game. He hit pay dirt over the next two years, going as far as convincing boastful traffickers to cop to the exact spots where they dug. Check and mate.
The Feds seized enough stuff to fill a semi, but that’s just a sliver of what’s out there, archaeologists think. No one knows exactly what’s buried in those wide expanses of trackless, hostile land that few people can navigate. The BLM has only surveyed 3 percent of its 261 million acres for culturally significant artifacts, the Times reports.
Organizations like the Durango-based Great Old Broads for Wilderness have been trying to bring the issue to light for years. “It has just kind of been given the wink and nod by local law enforcement,” Ronni Egan, executive director, said of pot hunting. She added that busts have been made in the past but nothing’s stuck.
“Hopefully this will also result in the BLM taking a closer look in trail designations and how much they leave open out there to motorized traffic, because that in itself really increases the threat to archeological resources,” she said.
A neighbor of the Broads’ associate director was among those nabbed in the sting. “They’d have yard sales and sell arrowheads and pots that the old man says he made,” said Tim Peterson, healthy lands project director for the Broads. “I guess they weren’t.”
Ken Salazar, Obama’s cowboy-hat-wearing choice for Interior Secretary and former Colorado Senator, was quoted by the Times as saying, “There have been times when the U.S. Government has looked the other way. This should send a strong statement.”
It does: There’s a new sheriff in town.